There’s a duality to life in Gleaner Heights. On the one hand is something perfectly pleasant. You’re a new farmer who has recently bought a rundown farm on the outskirts of Gleaner Heights, a sleepy village with a wide cast of characters. Your main job is to restore it (and the town) to its former glory. There are all manner of plants and animals to nurture. You can fish in the lake. You can mine precious metals in order to upgrade your tools and your homestead. You can craft recipes and cook delicious meals. You can pursue friendships and relationships with your new neighbours and can even get married.
It’s a formula that has been done countless times over the years and there will inevitably be comparisons to Stardew Valley. Gleaner Heights does lack some of the depth of that game, but there is still a solid framework here that ensures you could easily play the game as a farming sim if you want.
But it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. There’s a darkness that lies just below the surface in your new home. Everyone has ruinous secrets that are just waiting to be uncovered. You can be exposed to alcoholism, domestic abuse and adultery in your quest for the truth about what happened just before you arrived in town. Of course, you don’t have to get involved at all, and can farm all day every day if you so choose. But who doesn’t want to expose wickedness and corruption?
Whilst clearly influenced by the cult show Twins Peak, Gleaner Heights’ story is nevertheless a refreshing one, and really defines the game as something different. After all, drug dealing and domestic abuse aren’t usually found in your average farming sim! It’s also a unique experience seeing what some of your neighbours get up to behind closed doors, especially when you’ve put serious time into building friendships with them.
Player choice is a key driving force in this game, and this can only be a good thing. Beyond choosing whether to get involved or not, the game gives you the option to decide how events will play out. You can be a saint, always choosing to help out. Or you can be a right nasty pasty, screwing people over whenever you get the chance. You’ll get to experience the dire consequences of your evil deeds (and some of them are pretty dark). But if you choose to go down this path, the game will let you know about it. Gleaner Heights has a sin system that counts up all these transgressions and will allow you to experience a different ending than the one reserved for more moral players.
The most dedicated explorers can also find optional bosses to fight and chests full of treasure. There really is a lot of content on offer here. Be warned though, if you want to get anywhere with this game, you’ll need to invest some serious time. Progression, whether that means upgrading your farm or advancing the main story, is extremely slow. In the former, you’re going to need a lot of money and materials to buy any upgrades for your farm or tools. In the latter, you’re going to have to be prepared to venture out into the town on a nightly basis, in the hope you’ll stumble upon an event, as well as build relationships with the right people to unlock relevant dialogue. Gleaner Heights will not give up its secrets easily.
The fact that this game has a very slow burn will probably put some people off. The monotony of life in Gleaner Heights is demoralising at times, especially when you have put hours into it with no real progress to show for it. This is especially true for players who go in completely blind, and don’t know who to befriend and where to go to trigger events. Similarly, those who have never played a farming simulator before might find the early game overwhelming, considering it offers very little in terms of direction. You’re treated to a few, fairly limited tutorial screens, then left to your own devices.
The graphics are well done, and really give off the gothic feel that the game is trying to achieve, whilst the audio is similarly done. There is a separate music track for each season and a track for the hunting grounds to the west of your farm. But the best music this game has to offer comes from the sound of a saxophone that plays whilst you mine. You wouldn’t typically associate sax tunes with mining, but you can’t deny that it makes the experience just that little bit more enjoyable.
Unfortunately, each track is looped and so you’ll end up hearing the same track for hours on end. It got to the point where I was hoping for a rainy day because it stops the music, if only for a day or two. There really needs to be some variety in Gleaner Heights’ music in order to stop it becoming grating.
One final aspect of this game that I feel deserves to be mentioned is in the mining. Compared to the farming, it is a real chore and that’s a shame because it’s essential and necessary if you want to get anywhere. Upon your first visit to the mine, you’ll find just how annoying the whole mining experience is. To work your way through, you’ll need to find ladders to take you down a floor. But this is often frustrating as floors are randomly generated every time you go up and down ladders. Sometimes these ladders aren’t out in the open so you’ll spend significant portions of your time going up and down the floor you just came from, hoping to find the next ladder out in the open for you to go down. There are 40 floors, and if you want to get there you’ll need to do this hundreds of times.
The process of acquiring rare metals is a frustrating one as well. They spawn randomly in walls, and there’s no indication that a wall even contains anything. So you’re left randomly bashing walls (and wasting precious stamina in the process) hoping that a piece of copper, gold, or iron pops out. As you probably guessed, you’ll only find rare metals on low levels so you’re going to be stuck doing the ladder method I described above if you want them.
In terms of its farming gameplay, Gleaner Heights on Xbox One is nothing ground-breaking. But the game has enough variety to ensure that it is a good entry into the farming sim genre, even if lacks some of the depth of other prominent titles. However, the farming shouldn’t be your primary focus. If you really want to reap the full enjoyment from this game, you should get stuck into the mystery as soon as possible. It will take a serious investment of time, which will discourage some, and the game has some shortcomings like its poorly-thought out mining mechanics, but if you stick with it, you’ll be rewarded with an engaging tale of darkness and despair.